Flames of discontent have now reached northern Syria, which borders Turkey, but not only is Syria’s hard-line rule teetering, Turkey’s many initiatives in its neighborhood are also at stake.
The protests in Syria, echoing the rallying cries of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, were part of a wave of unrest that swept through Syria in which the Damascus Declaration, the Arab country’s leading pro-democracy group, said 200 people have died thus far. Most Western countries have condemned the Syrian authorities for a brutal crackdown of peaceful protests, but Turkey seems to be more concerned about a possible fall of the Assad family in Syria than Iran, Syria’s decades-old chief ally, which might face instability itself in such a case.
Turkey’s active diplomatic efforts to avert instability in Syria indicate that Turkey has high stakes in this Arab country, whose arch foe, Israel, has recently been experiencing strained ties with Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he has talked numerous times with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the protests started in mid-March.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu traveled to Damascus last week to have talks with Assad and his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallem. Turkey says it strongly and regularly urges its southern neighbor to make rapid reforms and meet the people’s expectations.
The recent uprising has brought Syria’s sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades -- a taboo subject because of the Assad family’s dynasty of minority rule. Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist uprising in Hama in 1982, shelling the town and killing tens of thousands in a massacre that still terrifies Syrians. There has not been a clear sectarian confrontation in Syrian demonstrations in nearly a month of protests.
Assad’s Alawite family filled the country’s most vital posts with Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam that represents only about 11 percent of the population. Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Even Kurds -- the largest ethnic minority in Syria -- who make up 15 percent of the country’s 23 million population and who have long complained of neglect and discrimination, did not participate in demonstrations. The Syrian president, however, granted citizenship to some 250,000 Kurds who had previously been denied citizenship, making it difficult to find work or enroll in the state-run education system.
Tensions between Kurds and the authorities have exploded into violence on several occasions. In March 2004, clashes between Syrian Kurds and security forces in the northeastern city of Qamishli spread to the nearby cities of Hasaka and Aleppo, with at least 25 killed and 100 wounded.
The spillover of protests to Kurdish-populated areas might also spur Turkey’s Kurds, who recently started a campaign of civil disobedience, to organize mass demonstrations, which often turn violent.
Hüsnü Mahalli, a columnist with the Akşam daily, said, among other things, that Turkey shares a sizeable Kurdish population with Syria and that turmoil among Kurds in Syria could also spill over into Turkey.
Veysel Ayhan, an expert from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), lashed out at Mahalli in his commentary published on Tuesday, accusing him of trying to justify why the Syrian regime could not transition to a democratic system and instead attempted to portray as legitimate the violent Syrian crackdown on its own people for voicing their basic demands.
Kaan Dilek, an expert with the Institute of Strategic Thought (SDE), said Syria is undoubtedly very important for Turkey’s Mideast and security policies.
Dilek noted that Syria is not only a security buffer for Turkey against Israel but also a very important center for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas, with which he said Turkey was not very successful in establishing relations. Claiming that one of the most important tools of foreign policy in the Middle East for a country is an operational and “provocative” strength, Dilek said Turkey is sadly unable to move forward sufficiently in this respect. He acknowledged that Turkey has the potential to avert sectarian and religious conflicts in the region but said Ankara does not have powerful theo-political or geopolitical tools.
Turkey was concerned over the possible danger that growing protests in the region might be transformed into sectarian confrontations as religious minorities rule in Syria and Bahrain, while minorities in others are repressed.
Mahalli rejected the idea that sectarian tensions will intensify and claimed this is a much-hyped artificial statement that has no basis in today’s conditions. He said that besides sectarian differences, the source of upheaval in Syria is a lack of democracy and the corruption that is rampant in the country.
Dilek asserted that there are “some powers” that want to convert developments in Syria into a sectarian phase, as is the case in Bahrain and Iraq, adding that “these powers” might have some partners in the region. He, however, painted a bleak picture and said it still remains unclear if these developments in Syria could trigger sectarian strife.
Mahalli says besides stability, Turkey also favors Assad because Turkey could build friendly ties with Syria in seven to eight years based on trust and friendship.
The Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced martial law since 1963. The wave of unrest has presented Assad with the biggest challenge to his rule since he succeeded his father, who ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000.
Dilek, in contrast, said Turkey is not compelled to support Assad and that no matter what color the transformation turns, Damascus will seek to build good ties with Ankara.
Mahalli said there are serious shortcomings in Syria’s democracy but that he welcomes some of Assad’s reforms. He said Assad’s rule did not tolerate minor dissent and that imprisonment was commonplace. But he said the Internet and social networking sites are fully functioning and that people can, albeit with difficulty, protest.
The Akşam columnist said Syria is indeed a key country for Turkey at a time when it is trying to adjust its foreign policy in the face of expanding mass demonstrations across the Middle East. Stating that the two have a trade volume of close to $2.5 billion, Mahalli said this is not important when considering the fact that Turkey’s trade with many Middle Eastern countries passes through Syria’s territory. With its vast historical, geographical and cultural richness and strategic importance, Mahalli said Syria is one of the most important countries in the region and one that maintains the balances of the region.
Mahalli added that all of Turkey’s projects with respect to the Middle East could collapse if Turkey loses Syria. He said Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan launched a joint economic initiative last year including the establishment of a free-trade zone that and officials from these countries were to convene in İstanbul in May, but the meeting has been postponed because of the turmoil. “This is one example of how Turkey’s projects might fail,” Mahalli said.